DES MOINES, Iowa — Sam Kendricks is the undisputed king of pole vault in the United States.
At the 2019 Toyota USATF Outdoor Championships, part of the Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity, the reigning world champion and Olympic bronze medalist soared to his sixth national title, literally raising the bar to 6.06 meters above Drake University’s blue oval.
It set a new American record, breaking Armand Duplantis’ 6.05 set last August (Duplantis competes for Sweden but holds dual citizenship with the U.S.). It is also now the world-leading height - and the best vault completed outdoors since 1994. Kendricks also claimed a record sixth consecutive pole vault national title.
Not bad for the guy whose father once called him “the worst pole vaulter that I ever started coaching.” Kendricks father, Scott, has coached him since he was young.
After Kendricks cleared 6.06 on his second try, his fellow competitors leapt into a pig pile atop him on the mat.
“I saw it coming,” he said. “I looked as I came over the bar, I looked to the left, and I saw that I hit the bar, but I didn’t hit as hard as the one before, and I said that’s going to stay. As I was falling, I was saying they’re about to come tackle me.”
He dug his spikes into the mat so as not to scratch anyone, though someone’s spike scratched his right shin. But Kendricks did not seem to care.
Kendricks, 26, is known for his camaraderie on the track and his patriotism. A first lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserve, he famously stopped running to the vault, dropped his pole and stood at attention when he heard the “The Star-Spangled Banner” playing during the Olympic Games Rio 2016. The national anthem was playing for American Michelle Carter who won gold in the shot put.
At 2019 U.S. nationals, Kendricks spent the competition chatting with the other competitors, cheering on the men’s steeplechasers, and talking to fans and his coach in the stands. As he lined up for his second try at 6.06, his fellow competitors showed their love and respect, lining the in-run and clapping.
“I have never been to a competition where there’s enough guys who want success for you that bad,” said Kendricks. “We’re a pretty tight-knit group around the world in the pole vault. But here in the States, we speak the same language, and that’s something special, a bunch of American boys out there can do amazing things.”
Behind him, Cole Walsh and KC Lightfoot finished second and third after clearing 5.76. Kendricks cleared 5.86 but decided to keep going higher, given conditions. It was 90 degrees in Des Moines, and even hotter in the stadium.
In the heat, vaulters’ poles react differently, explained Kendricks, making them stiffer and giving vaulters more velocity over the bar. Although the heat can sap the athletes’ strength, it was ideal for going high.
“When I jumped 6 meters for the first time in Sacramento (at 2017 U.S. nationals), it was the same conditions — hot on the track, my shoes were melting,” he explained.
As soon as he won his sixth national title at 5.86, he wanted to try for the American record.
“I said, ‘Coach, today is the day, let’s go for it,’” said Kendricks.
First, his coach advised, he should jump 5.91.
“It gave me the best mental shot,” said Kendricks. “When you’re going up to 6.06, I’d already jumped 91. You’ve got to bridge the gap between these big leaps in bar heights.”
On his first attempt, he hit the bar and it fell. But he told his coach: “I’ve hit bars harder and they’ve stayed, dang it.”
He knew he had it.
As the defending world pole vault champion, Kendricks earned a bye to the world championships, which start at the end of September in Doha, Qatar. Walsh and Lightfoot made their first world championships roster, as well as fourth-place finisher Zach Bradford (three qualify in addition to the defending champion).
Worlds will be tough. In the early part of the season, Kendricks was undefeated in Diamond League meets. Then the competition started, um, raising the bar.
At the Prefontaine meet on June 30, Duplantis, who’s only 19, beat Kendricks by 0.05 meters (less than two inches). In a subsequent Diamond League meet in July, Kendricks vaulted to a then-season’s best of 5.95. But Polish rival Piotr Lisek bested him with a world-leading 6.01. A week later — and just before coming to Des Moines — Kendricks finished fifth, his 5.82-meter vault far behind Lisek’s world-leading 6.02 and Duplantis’ 5.92.
But Kendricks is happy to represent Team USA for a third time, no matter if he is able to defend his world title or not.
“I have a singular mindset in the sport,” he said. “I don’t think it’s my destiny to hold a world record (6.16, set by France’s Renaud Lavillenie in 2014). It’s way too damn high. My only goal was formulated when I came to my first USA championships. When I get the chance to wear USA, all I can do is be hard to beat, or strive to be that.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.